One thing I try hard to do is to remain isolated from the politicking and punditry surrounding the NCAA tournament selection process. By and large, this process is a meritocracy, and the inevitable "noise" from around the country at this point of the season is mostly a distraction.
But I'm human, after all, and every once in a while something gets through. Take these comments from Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, asked about my inclusion of "only" seven Big East teams in last Friday's bracket:
"To me, that's ridiculous," Cronin said. "I would tell Joe Lunardi he needs to buy the ESPN Full Court package. Are you telling me that Syracuse wouldn't win the A-10? Does somebody want to give me that answer? I'd like to have that argument with somebody.
"You're going to tell me that Syracuse, with their McDonald's All-Americans and their talent, would not win the A-10? They're eighth in our conference. For us to not get at least eight is only a by-product of us beating up on each other and being penalized for having too good of a conference."
You can read the entire Cincinnati Enquirer article here.
Now I don't know Cronin, and he appears to be doing a terrific job of keeping his Bearcats more than competitive in the hellacious Big East. But I would politely suggest that he keep his eye on the ball and leave broader judgments about the tournament selection process to the NCAA men's basketball committee, since apparently my views aren't to his liking.
His comments, however, do offer an opportunity to make some critical points:
• The men's basketball committee evaluates TEAMS, not CONFERENCES. If there are seven Big East teams among the 34 best at-large candidates, all will be included in the field. The same is true if the number is five or 10 or 15. I've gone through the mock bracketing exercise, and at no point are committee members counting the number of teams already voted into the field from a given league.
• The reason for "only" seven Big East teams in last Friday's bracket was that I judged the next ones on the board -- Cincinnati (you knew that was coming), Georgetown, Providence and Notre Dame -- as less qualified than a handful of other bubble teams under consideration. There is no right or wrong answer to this question until Selection Sunday, but I can tell you that, as a credential for selection, "We're in eighth place in the Big East" is irrelevant.
• For the record, Syracuse was and continues to be in our projected field. And it has little or nothing to do with how the Orange stand in the conference. The Orange have beaten multiple teams in the field and continue to do so. Ultimately, there is no more valid credential any team can put on the table. How they would or wouldn't finish in another conference is useless speculation and, again, irrelevant to the process.
These are the facts at hand. If I were to add a few opinions, they would go something like this:
• For most of the season, we've been showing nine Big East teams in the projected field. It's been the collective stumbling of Georgetown and Notre Dame, not a weakness of the conference, that is hurting the league's NCAA bid count.
• This can (and likely will) change over the next four weeks. Which Big East teams move up -- as is the case with Providence in today's bracket -- is pure guesswork. The best thing the Bearcats can do is root for Georgetown (given a season sweep of the Hoyas) and try to beat teams above them in the conference standings. Until that happens, they aren't going to climb much higher than they are.
• There is not much evidence to suggest the eighth-place team from the Big East would win the Atlantic 10. Whether or not Syracuse or Cincinnati is better this season than Xavier or Dayton is a matter of opinion. What we do know is how the committee has evaluated comparable situations in the past (with respective NCAA seeding in parenthesis):
So, in this decade, the A-10 champ leads the Big East "middle" by a count of 6-1-1. Four weeks to go ...
P.S.: I do get the ESPN Full Court package.
Joe Lunardi is the resident Bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. Comments may be sent to Bracketology@comcast.net.